Read JCO’s take on classics and contemporaries, from William Shakespeare to Stephen King, as well as her view of the short story, the gothic & grotesque, American literary culture, and the isolated artist, below.

This I Believe: Five Motives for Writing

Bearing witness. Most of the world’s population, through history, have not been able to “bear witness” for themselves. They lack the language, as well as the confidence, to shape the language for their own ends. They lack the education, as well as the power that comes with education. Politically, they may be totally disenfranchised—simply too poor, and devastated by poverty and the bad luck that comes with poverty, like an infected limb turning gangrenous. They may be suppressed, or terrorized into silence. My most intense sympathies tend to be for those individuals who have been left behind by history, as by the economy; they are all around us, but become visible only when something goes terribly wrong, like a natural disaster, or an outburst of madness and violence. More

The Myth of the Isolated Artist

It is my conviction that all human beings “create” personality. Some do so passively, helplessly, and are in a sense created by others, whom they come to fear or hate; others create their personalities half-consciously, and are therefore half-pleased with their creations, though they suspect something is missing; a few human beings, gifted with the ability to “see” themselves as “other,” and not overly intoxicated with the selfness of the self, actually devise works of art that are autobiographical statements of a hypothetical, reality-testing nature, which they submit with varying degrees of confidence to the judgment of their culture. More

Introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

A predominant vein connecting the majority of the stories in this volume from Washington Irving and William Austin through to our contemporaries, is the quest, in some cases a distinctly American quest, for one’s place in the world; one’s cultural and spiritual identity, in terms of self and others.

For ours is the nation, so rare in human history, of self-determination; a theoretical experiment in newness, exploration, discovery. In theory at least, who our ancestors have been, what languages they have spoken, in what religions they believed—these factors cannot really help to define us. And it has been often noted that, in the New World, history itself has moved with extraordinary rapidity. Each generation constitutes a beginning-again, a new discovery, sometimes of language itself. More

Reflections on the Grotesque

A sensibility that would find intolerable the lurid excesses of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) might respond with much feeling to vampire tales cast in a more “literary” mode, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and such Symbolist-“realist” works by Thomas Mann as Death in Venice, “Mario the Magician,” “Tristan” (“. . . while the child, Anton Kloterjahn, a magnificent specimen of a baby, seized on his place in life with prodigious energy and ruthlessness, a low, unobservable fever seemed to waste the young mother daily.”). Of all monstrous creatures it has been the vampire that by tradition both attracts and repels, for vampires have nearly always been portrayed as aesthetically (that is, erotically) appealing. (Peter Quint is the hinge, redhaired, wearing no hat, “very erect,” upon which James’s The Turn of the Screw turns—unless he is the screw itself.) And this is the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo—that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices. More

Introduction to American Gothic Tales

If there is a single gothic-grotesque writer of the American twentieth century to be compared with Poe, it is H. P. Lovecraft, born in 1890. The child of psychotic parents (his father died of tertiary syphilis when Lovecraft was three, his mother, a schizophrenic, died institutionalized), Lovecraft was a precocious, prolific talent who chose to live a reclusive life, producing a unique body of horror stories and novellas before his premature death, of cancer, at the age of forty-seven, in 1937. Long a revered cult figure to admirers of “weird fiction” (Lovecraft’s own, somewhat deprecatory term for his art), Lovecraft is associated with crude, obsessive, rawly sensationalist and overwrought prose in the service of naming the unnameable. Like Poe, he may have been creating counter-worlds in which to speak his heart in frank, if codified terms: “Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with … maddening rows of antique books,” begins “The Outsider,” an atypically compressed story. Lovecraft’s compulsion is again and again to approach the horror that is a lurid twin of one’s self, or that very self seen in an unsuspected mirror… More

American Literary Culture: A Personal Perspective

To live, for example, as I did, in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1960s—Detroit, a city billed as both “Automotive Capital of the World” and “Murder City, USA,” and the setting of the 1968 riots—was to find myself not only provided with but hardly able to ignore the immediacy of drama, social conflict, tragedy, tragi-comedy … the opportunity of realizing firsthand a virtual allegory of American experience. The city of Detroit in its myriad aspects became for me a region of symbolic luminosities: it was itself, of course, uniquely and irreducibly so, but it was also far more—an emblem of American ambition, American delusion, American strife, American hopes, American violence, American dreams-gone-wrong. More

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